Kalman Weiser was interviewed by Pauline Katz on December 19, 2010 at the Association for Jewish Studies Conference in Boston, MA.
Kalman Weiser, the Silber Family Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto, begins by talking about his family background. Raised in Staten Island, in a Jewish, but not particularly religious, environment, Kalman heard Yiddish as a child, and knew that it was in some way tied to the identity of preceding generations, but not more than that.
He then talks about his time as an undergraduate at Yale, where he discovered a local Yiddish reading circle that opened his eyes to the richness of Yiddish culture and modern Jewish history. He goes on to discuss his decision to continue his studies in the Yiddish graduate program at Columbia. Here he found a close-knit group of scholars and fellow students, and made organic connections with the living Yiddish culture of New York at that time. These experiences were particularly formative in shaping the early and middle phases of his personal Yiddishist philosophy.
Kalman proceeds to reflect on his journey to York University, where he currently teaches. He contrasts his teaching experiences in Toronto to those at Columbia and in the Weinreich summer program, suggesting that these map onto to larger differences in American and Canadian Jewish cultures.
He turns next to his main academic interests - the intellectuals Noah Prilutski, the subject of his first book, and Max Weinreich, whose papers he pored over for a year while at the University of Michigan. Both projects have been part of his attempt to understand the contours of Yiddishism and the institutions it spawned.
A broader discussion of the value of Yiddish to the study of modern Jewish history follows, as Kalman laments that many continue to look down upon Yiddish, and that the language remains on the periphery of modern Jewish identities. This leads to a more personal exploration of his current Yiddishism, and his assessment of how feasible or desirable it is to speak and live in Yiddish within and without Toronto.
After briefly surveying the sectors of the contemporary Yiddish world, Kalman examines the role of the academy in bringing Yiddish back in from the periphery. He then discusses his upcoming projects and goals, which center on training a new generation of researchers within the still-developing programs that York has to offer.
Kalman concludes by returning to what Yiddish means to him today, asserting that it remains an intimate part of him even if the viability of living in Yiddish, speaking it on a regular basis, or raising a family in Yiddish may be in doubt. Kalman suggests that his scholarship has allowed him to think about the questions of Jewish identity and peoplehood in both broad and personal terms. He ends by advising himself and future scholars to press on in consciously creating a Yiddish "svive" (milieu), a difficult but worthwhile endeavor.
To learn more about the Wexler Oral History Project, visit: http://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/tell-your-story